Narcissism specialists say that we have two choices when dealing with narcissists and those on the narcissistic spectrum: live on their terms or go “no contact.” I suggest we have a third option: walk through the chaos and confusion armed with new strategies and coping skills and protected by solid, healthy boundaries.
In my own recovery journey, reading, researching, and working through various therapies eventually led me into Narcissism Awareness Grief (NAG). I finally acknowledged my negative, traumatic childhood experiences and learned how, unhealed, they affected my adult relationships. I diligently worked through the stages of NAG and continued learning new coping skills like setting boundaries, positively emotionally detaching, and practicing strategic communication. As I found my voice and spoke my truth, my confidence and self-esteem grew. I began feeling whole and worthy for the first time in my life.
If you’ve read “Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism,” you know that one of the ways my mother manipulated and controlled me as a child was to use the fear of abandonment. She threatened to give me away, put me in an orphanage, or send me to live with my father, whom she repeatedly said: “didn’t love us or want anything to do with us.” I lived in constant fear of doing the “right thing,” whatever the right thing was at any particular time. “The right thing” could and did change without warning, so I needed to remain constantly alert for changes in her tone of voice, behavior, and our home environment.
My mom parented by blaming, shaming, intimidating, threatening, and physically punishing. In the earliest years of my life, I learned that I was somehow to blame for everything that displeased her. Second-guessing and doubting myself became my way of life. I felt like a burden, believing that I made her life harder simply because I existed. I stayed out of her way as much as possible. I grew up feeling lonely and alone.
My mother shared her thoughts and feelings with me in frightening, highly emotionally charged, biased, and inappropriate ways. Gaslighting and the resulting cognitive dissonance distorted my perceptions and beliefs. At age eight, my codependency had begun. Her behavior initiated the codependency process, and her words guaranteed it.
Written words, spoken words, they all matter. It matters what people say to you, and it matters what you say to yourself. If you live with a narcissist or toxic person (or have one in your life,) you already know that it can negatively affect how you think about yourself, what you tell yourself, and how you treat yourself.
Oblivious of my codependency, her words and my own negative self-talk combined to confirm my beliefs that I was unlovable, would never be good enough, and didn’t matter.
The combination of the negative self-talk and the limiting beliefs kept me in a state of learned helplessness. Eventually, as an adult, I woke up to the fact that I was stuck. I’d been repeating the same hurtful relationship patterns throughout my adult life and wondering why I was unhappy. Finally, I realized that something had to change. So, among other things, I started examining, questioning and then changing my unsupportive inner dialogue into supportive, positive self-talk. I watched in awe as my limiting beliefs began to fade away. As I started thinking differently about myself, my self-identity changed. My opinions about myself changed. I changed.
Pleasing and Appeasing
I talk about codependency a lot in Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism. Codependency is at the very core of the changes we need to make in ourselves, so we can heal from the mistreatment or abuse.
Codependency is described as a set of maladaptive coping skills. They are typically learned in childhood when feeling unsafe in the home environment. Living with real or perceived threats makes it necessary for those growing up like this to monitor their settings and control people and outcomes to feel safe. It eventually feels natural to do this, and it becomes a way of life. Codependency can also be learned by imitating other codependents. It can be passed down through generations. This is known as “generational trauma.”
If we’re codependent, we became that way as a survival mechanism. Becoming codependent helped us survive a chaotic, confusing, and possibly dangerous environment. Then we grew up and found ourselves to be “people-pleasers” who willingly play by the rules of others and lose our identity in the process. We rely on others for a sense of identity, approval, or affirmation. We support and “enable” others in their addictions, mental illness, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement. As adults, we can eliminate codependent thinking and acting by learning new tools, skills, and strategies.
When we’re bogged down in codependency, it’s impossible to know our true, authentic selves. But by using affirmations, we can become aware of our codependent thoughts and behavior and replace them with healthy, functional ones. And we can finally get to know our real selves.
How Affirmations Work
Affirmations remind us of who we are when we are our authentic selves. By writing and speaking positive affirmations, we can begin honoring and eventually becoming our true selves. Affirmations help us to find ourselves and create our best lives possible.
A Positive Mindset
Affirmations are designed to promote an optimistic mindset; they have been shown to reduce the tendency to dwell on negative experiences (Wiesenfeld et al., 2001.) Optimism is powerful! When we replace negative thoughts with positive ones, we create a whole new narrative around “who we are” and what we can accomplish.
There are three fundamental ideas involved in self-affirmation theory. First, correctly written affirmations work according to this theory:
- By using positive affirmations, we can change our self-identity. Affirmations reinforce a newly created self-narrative; we become flexible and capable of adapting to different conditions (Cohen & Sherman, 2014.) Now, instead of viewing ourselves in a fixed or rigid way (for example, as “lazy”), we are flexible in our thoughts. We can adopt a broader range of “identities” and roles and define things like “success” differently. We can view various aspects of ourselves as positive and adapt to different situations more easily (Aronson, 1969.)
- Self-identity is not about being exceptional, perfect, or excellent (Cohen & Sherman, 2014). Instead, we need to be competent and adequate in areas that we value (Steele, 1988.)
- We maintain self-integrity by behaving in ways that genuinely deserve acknowledgment and praise. We say an affirmation because we want to integrate that particular personal value into our own identity.
Affirmation research focuses on how individuals adapt to information or experiences that threaten their self-image. Today, self-affirmation theory remains well-studied throughout social psychological research.
Self-affirmation theory has led to research in neuroscience and investigating whether we can “see” how the brain changes using imaging technology while using positive affirmations. MRI evidence suggests that specific neural pathways increase when we speak affirmations (Cascio et al., 2016). For example, the “ventromedial prefrontal cortex,” involved in positive self-evaluation and self-related information processing, becomes more active when we speak positively about our values (Falk et al., 2015; Cascio et al., 2016).
The evidence suggests that affirmations are beneficial in multiple ways.
- have been shown to decrease health-related stress (Sherman et al., 2009; Critcher & Dunning, 2015.)
- have been used effectively in “Positive Psychology Interventions,” or PPI, scientific tools and strategies used for increasing happiness, well-being, positive thinking, and emotions (Keyes, Fredrickson, & Park, 2012.)
- may help change the perception of otherwise “threatening” messages (Logel & Cohen, 2012.)
- can help us set our intention to change for the better (Harris et al., 2007) (Epton & Harris, 2008.)
- have been positively linked to academic achievement by lessening GPA decline in students who felt isolated in college (Layous et al., 2017.)
- have been demonstrated to lower stress (Koole et al., 1999; Weisenfeld et al., 2001.)
- provide health benefits by helping us respond in a less defensive or resistant manner when we perceive threats.
In a nutshell, using affirmations allows us to create an adaptive, broader self-concept, making us more resilient to life’s struggles. A broader self-concept is a valuable tool!
More tools for healing:
Learn how to protect yourself with boundaries
Learn about dysfunctional family roles
Learn about codependency
Understand the narcissistic abuse cycle
Learn about Narcissism Awareness Grief
Let go of what you can’t control using positive detachment
Learn why expectations can be harmful
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About the Author
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, Diane Metcalf developed strong coping and healing strategies. She happily shares those with those who want to learn and grow in their own recovery journies.
Diane is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on narcissism, family dysfunction, and abuse. She draws from her personal childhood experiences, as well as her work in human service fields like domestic violence and partner abuse. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Her transformational books about healing and moving forward include the highly praised “Lemon Moms” series. This emotionally supportive collection explains narcissistic traits and teaches how to reconcile past hurts to begin self-nurturing, healing, and moving forward.
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Learn about the Lemon Moms series: Lemon Moms
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.